Disclosure: I like Sam Harris and agree with much of what he says.
The End of Faith has been reviewed extensively since its first publication, but I need to pipe my opinion. With my gradual understanding and knowledge of Sam Harris, this book came to my attention as an eventuality. I’ve read only one other of his books (Islam and The Future of Tolerance), but I intend to read them all. I like his approach and what is, in my opinion, his open mind regarding universal principles which not everyone (atheist or not) shares. Anyone who thinks that all atheists share the same thoughts, opinions, or principles with each other does not understand them. The thesis of this book is no exception.
Many people see the book as his attempt to dissuade people away from their faith, and maybe Sam would agree. Knowing what I have experienced with people of strong religious faith, it will take more than this or any other book. But, for those with serious doubts and deep questions, this is a valuable resource. This is a book written by an atheist who is critical of all religion, especially Islam; at least in terms of the radical elements of that faith. So for anyone emotionally sensitive about the criticism of religion, this may not be the book to read.
Sam begins The End of Faith with a bit of historical fiction based upon fact. He describes a scenario in which a young man boards a bus and explodes a bomb killing many people, including himself. This act of terrorism sets the stage for the remainder of the book.
In several chapters, Sam makes a number of claims which I first thought were outlandish. But after reading his explanations, I came into agreement with him. Two such examples are the problems enabled by western religious moderates and the evil of pacifism.
The textual material in the paperback version that I read was only 238 pages. That includes an Epilogue and an Afterword. It is not enough. However, these are followed by 64 pages of extensive end notes that provide more details. The bibliography is comprehensive and furnishes the more curious reader ample resources on the topic for more than a year of study. A useful index ends the book.
The copyright page indicates the years 2004 and 2005, so he probably wrote this in the 2002 to 2003 timeframe – a year or two after September 11, 2001. The world has not been static since then. In other places I have heard Sam admit that he has learned much in the dozen or so years that followed publication of this bestseller.
In at least a couple of his podcasts, Sam talks about this book and defends a lot of what he says. But he also explains what he might say differently today, or what different words he might now use to say things and why he would. The two podcasts can be found here and here and are worth the time of the serious reader. In the second, he spends a lot of time talking about presidential candidates and what he thinks of them. He is not a supporter of Donald Trump, but he also sees Clinton as a ‘lesser evil’ vote. Eventually, he gets around to the book.
I enjoyed reading The End of Faith. I’ve never found anyone who writes on such topics with whom I agree 100%. Sam Harris is no exception, but close. For me, this book is informative and educational. As he says, “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.” A comment right up my ‘snarkastic’ alley. I selected a couple of quotes from the book that I liked.
“There is no denying that a person’s conception of the afterlife has direct consequences for his view of the world.”
“Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.”
I need to get busy reading because I think Sam Harris is working on a new book. I don’t like it when these guys get ahead of me like this. God knows, I may actually learn something.
This blog is about a book. If you look at my ‘about’ tab, under Frat Friday, think of topics 1, 2, 3, 9, 11, 12, and 13. While I will not include my personal religious or political opinions today, the book I want to talk about is about religion and politics. It is a lot about hate, causes, and it’s certainly in the news. The religion is Islam. The book is Islam and the Future of Tolerance by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. It is a dialog (not a debate) and only about 120 to 140 pages long. I preferred the audio version with Sam and Maajid reading their parts, but it’s a good read.
On Amazon, 315 reviews awarded an average of 4.5 stars with 92% being either 4 or 5 stars. Most of the low critiques are more personal attacks on the authors with little concern for future readers of the book. I read the book and will read it again.
Both men are intelligent, experts in their fields, and well-spoken.
Harris is a well-known American atheist, philosopher, neuroscientist, and author of several books.
Nawaz is a British Muslim and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank. He is a former member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which he left in 2007 when he renounced his Islamist past. He now advocates Secular Islam.
“What is Islamism? Islam is a religion; Islamism is the desire to impose any version of that religion on society. It’s the politicization of my own religion. What is Jihadism? The use of force to spread Islamism.” ~ Maajid Nawaz
“The only conclusion I can draw from everything you’ve just said is that the problem of ideology is far worse than most people suppose.” ~ Sam Harris
The essence and differences
While the two people in the dialogue have vastly different views on religion, they each allow a pass for the other in order to have this discussion. What they do agree upon is that there is a significant problem and threat within the Islamic faith regarding danger from some of the members. I’m not sure that they agree on who is dangerous, or how many, or exactly why.
(Not addressing this conversation, but similar ones.) “The people I really worry about when we have this conversation are feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, ex-Muslims – all vulnerable…in many cases violently assaulted or killed….” ~ Maajid Nawaz
It may take more than one pass through to glean their exact positions. Precision of understanding and clear definition of terms are goals of both men, something Harris works to ensure. They agree that the discussion needs to take place, but efforts are confounded by people on both the fundamentalist right (mostly Muslims) and what Nawaz refers to as the regressive left (or liberals).
“…The general picture is of a white, liberal non-Muslim who equates any criticism of Islamic doctrines with bigotry, ‘Islamophobia,’ or even ‘racism.’…they deny any connection between heartfelt religious beliefs and Muslim violence….de facto organs of Islamist apology – The Guardian, Salon, The Nation, Alternet, and so forth. This has made it very difficult to have public conversations of the sort we are having.” ~ Sam Harris
The biggest problem for America, if not the world
Europe currently faces a much greater problem than America in dealing with Islamists. By comparison with Europe, America has 3.3 million Muslims (1%), while France (9.6%), Belgium (6%), and United Kingdom (4.5%) have Muslims as significantly higher percentages of their total population. What Harris and Nawaz agree on is that attempts to discuss how to solve the problems created by Islamic Extremism are taboo topics.
I think they have a point. While Sam points to the fundamentals of Islam as problematic, understanding of his basic premises regarding religion (and the same can be said of virtually any contemporary, well-known atheist) reveals that he gives no religion a pass – especially no Abrahamic religion.
The context of what is said
“One of the problems with religion is that it creates in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, even when members of one’s own group are behaving like psychopaths.” ~ Sam Harris
The best way to follow what these two men are saying is to know the context of what they are saying supported by their beliefs or philosophy. To do this, it would be helpful to read other books, particularly Harris’s The End of Faith.
They’re both attacked continually and called insulting names and threatened. Both spend a good deal of effort justifying their positions and protecting themselves. Both have done TED talks that are worth viewing to understand their positions.